Monday, August 25, 2003

Glass box purse

Last week a woman boarded the bus carrying a purse which was a glass box--perfectly clear. I could count how many bus tickets she had left, see whether there were hairs in her brush, estimate how fat her wallet was and try to guess where she was planning to go for lunch from the coupons. I did none of these things, but she seemed to invite them. When I mentioned this to a friend from church I learned that some high schools require transparent backpacks! (I leave as an exercise to the reader describing 3 ways of transporting weapons in a transparent backpack, with extra credit for approaches that won't set off metal detectors.)

Transparency is supposed to be a good thing, but I think this exceeds the bounds of courtesy. What next? Transparent clothing? (If you start getting excited, think pot bellies and appendicitis scars.) Surely her job doesn't require this, does it?

Perhaps the lady has an exhibitionist streak, and wanted the world to see what color her comb was and whether she used pads or tampons. I don't think I need to know these details, though.

From the Dust Returned by Ray Bradbury

Bradbury's short stories are often gems, and put to shame most of the unimaginative triple-decker tomes that litter the bookstores. In The Martian Chronicles he assembled a number of his short stories about Mars, added a little connective work, and let fly; not worrying that the various stories weren't very consistent with each other.

Unfortunately he worries about consistency here. I almost didn't finish the book, which would have been a shame, since there are a few fine moments in it. He built it around his Elliot family, with the lonely and oddly unempathetic mind-rider Cecy and the normal boy Timothy living among and longing to be one of the creatures of the night. Bradbury's strength lies in moods, and he undercuts this when he tries to explain too much, or gets preachy--as he does sometimes here. I wish he could have done the collaboration with Charles Adams he mentions in the afterwards--I think they would have fed each other's ideas and made a much better book.

Putting on compassion, kindness, humility ...

In Colossians 3:5-14 we're instructed to put to death the works of the old nature and put on the works of the new. This sounds a bit hypocritical--"never mind what you really feel like, act this way." But if we actually have been given the Spirit of God, then that is now our deepest nature, whether we feel it or not, and it is our job to give expression to the desires of God and not the desires of our old corrupt nature. And so, with faith in the assurances that this is so, let's do it unashamed.

Saturday, August 23, 2003

Ain't it always that way?

Some interesting topics in number theory that I'd been playing with in my spare time turn out to have been the subject of a thesis 5 years ago. I asked for a copy (wish it were online!) and I'll see if it answers all the questions I had. Oh well, it won't be the first time I've reinvented the wheel.

(You may ask why I didn't do a literature search long ago. I did, but I wasn't adequately familiar with the jargon describing the tools she used to attack the problems.)


Not far from us Kraus Realty plowed up some farmland, and, with no apparent sense of irony, built what they call Nature's Preserve Office Park. Not that there was a lot of wildwood there in the first place--next to two highways...

More on Maggie

The Enemies of Eros is extremely disjoint. It reads very much as though it were welded together from a set of essays. In my earlier summary of her main points I reorganized them for a better logical flow. And I did not do justice to her effort to demonstrate how attitudes are shaped by possibilities.

My eldest daughter read it (by agreement, I name no family members here), and asserts that Maggie overstates the antipathy to stay-at-home mothers--she has not observed this. Nor does she think her boyfriend is afflicted by the unwillingness to take responsibility for a family that Maggie saw spreading.

I'll accept both observations, though with the caveat that there's a sampling bias at work. She moves in very different circles from Maggie.

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Answering Maggie

In the previous post I gave a skeleton review of Enemies of Eros. The book is notable by its absence of solutions.

Some proposed solutions are implicit:

  • Tighten up divorce laws to make it much more difficult to divorce, especially if children are involved.
  • Try to rationalize the welfare system to involve fathers.
  • She doesn't address this, but it follows from her thesis Phase out all domestic partner benefits.

Unfortunately the biggest problems are social and cultural, and not amenable to simple actions. The cultural elite are unfriendly to traditional families, and you can't just make this entrenched oligarchy change their minds or go away at the snap of your fingers--a real cultural revolution takes time. What can you offer to counter the flood of "sex without responsibility" images that flood the movies, TV, radio, and advertisements?

One thing that can help is to ask "Who benefits from the current situation?" Unmarried men make out very well (pun intended), and business interests benefit from the cheap labor pool that the influx of part-time women represent. Realize that there are winners as well as losers, and ask if it is worth the candle.

We need to be clear what we support, and able to dissect the bogus sociology and philosophy that supports the anti-family forces.

We need to review our approach to the legal standing of families, with an eye to re-incorporating the role of the extended family. The nuclear family should not be the ideal--the extended family has built-in psychological and financial support that we need to recognize.

Tuesday, August 19, 2003

Enemies of Eros by Maggie Gallagher

How the sexual revolution is killing family, marriage, and sex and what we can do about it

Her book spreads itself to touch many different topics and examples, and does not follow a path sharp enough to summarize easily. I'll try anyway. [Go read the book yourself! Also see The Abolition of Marriage] She observes that:

  • Sex in our culture has been abstracted, dehumanized, and dis-integrated. "Sex is about physical pleasure" is the Big Lie. If sex were only about physical pleasure, who would bother with the complexities of dealing with another purpose, when masturbation is so easy? Sex is about the union with another person: not just a body, not just a set of physical stimuli.
  • Sex without responsibility is an illusion. Sex makes babies, who require years of care--unless you kill them.
  • Contract law doesn't even begin to reflect the complexities and sacrifices that marriage and parenting entail. Contract law focuses on choices rather than status, but in a family responsibilities are based on status--husband, wife, father, mother, child. To be a member of a family is the exact opposite of being an economic cog in the machine; and interchangeable part.
  • You can't pay people enough to raise a child properly--unless they fall in love with the child.
  • Children need stable families.(*)
  • Gender differences are real. Their expression varies slightly with the culture, but every other culture tries to distinguish masculine and feminine. Sex roles create a climate of stability.
  • Easy divorce creates a climate of instability that effects everybody.
  • It is no longer possible to make a commitment to marry for life and have this honored by law. Marriage in the customary sense no longer exists in law.
  • Popular feminist theory demonizes stay-at-home mothers. This is perverse enough already, but an unintended side effect of encouraging women to work and be independent is that men take this at face value, and frequently decline to support the woman and his/her children.
  • Some women are meant for careers outside the home, but the majority fall in love with their children.
  • Men need to be civilized. Without social pressure they often duck their responsibilities, and thus never fall in love with their children, and thus do not care for them effectively.
  • The sexual revolution is designed for the convenience of unmarried men. Women are expected to put out without the promise of commitment.
  • Simple-minded welfare programs have, by making men less necessary, made them less involved with their families (often never bothering to marry), and thus perpetuating the poverty the programs were meant to relieve.

To give a flavor of her insights...

If sex roles are too stifling, the obvious answer is to widen the range of opportunity contained in the role, not to extirpate gender altogether. What is the result of attempting to abolish sex roles by proclamation? Men, abandoning a civilized male role, increasing turn to promiscuous sex and violence as their primary route to male identity. Women remain in our traditional role as caretakers of the children--poorer, overworked, more vulnerable to male abandonment and abuse. And children, both male and female, become the most vulnerable of all.

Men are, apparently, rather bad at determining when a woman is actually attracted to them.

I don't know how they can have failed to notice that, as a matter of hard empirical fact, not every woman who smiles at a man is signaling an uncontrollable desire to become his own sweet patootie. But from their point of view, it seems, men are constantly surrounded by lustful women who perversely refuse to sleep with them. ... What men are apparently doing is projecting their own sexual responses onto women. It's only natural, women do the same thing in the opposite direction.

One consequence is that women vastly underestimate the effect their sexuality has on men in relationships which they have defined as nonromantic. This emerged clearly in Richardson's landmark study of mistresses. "One of the primary reasons these relationships escalate is because the men and women have different assessments of the situation. 'His' reality and 'Her' reality are not the same." If forewarned is forearmed, women who believe in androgyny are ripe for the plucking.

And get plucked they do.

Nothing is more astonishing than the naivete of the sophisticated woman. "We talked about it for several months," reports one woman, "and I only saw him after work. I told him I wouldn't mind just being friends, purely platonic, but if he wanted a flesh relationship, forget it. Because he kept seeing me, I knew he wanted to be friends too."

By all means go read her book(s).

(*)The crime rates prove this. Note people frequently lie with statistics, by saying that the average child without a stable family is not much more violent than one from a stable family. This is misleading because the criminal activity comes from the tail of the distribution (the number violent beyond a certain threshold), and a small change in the mean produces a huge change in the number whose violence becomes disruptive.

She points out that black families in the USA have been hugely disrupted, and the social effects are horrible.

Monday, August 18, 2003

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Arthur C. Clarke

NIMBY = Not In My BackYard

BANANA = Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody

I gather that our existing power generation technology is already so advanced that a large fraction of the American public considers it magical. Who needs power plants or transmission lines? Doesn't electricity just automatically appear when you turn on the switch?

Sunday, August 17, 2003

What a way to welcome new students!

Johnson street (the eastbound of a pair of streets) is torn up from Engineering to well past the East end of campus. One spinmeister said that we now have "4 lanes of gravel parking" for the convenience of move-ins, but that's cold comfort to out-of-towners. Madison is like a strangled octopus even when all the roads are available.

Islam Unveiled by Robert Spencer

Spencer's thesis is simple: It is not possible to separate out a violent and a peaceful Islam--both spring from exactly the same root.

He addresses in each chapter issues like "Does Islam Respect Human Rights," The Crusades: Christian and Muslim," "Is Islam Tolerant of Non-Muslims," and "Does Islam Promote and Safeguard Sound Moral Values?" To answer the latter he draws heavily on the life of Muhammad, showing his prophecies to be remarkably solicitous of Muhammad's sex life. It is trivial to demonstrate that Islam is not a particularly peaceful religion. The Crusades were the Western reaction to the Muslim jihad, after all.

While Spencer recognizes periods of tolerance of non-Muslims, he cites Bat Yeor and a number of other historical incidents to show that intolerance is just as fundamental as tolerance.

That there are many peaceful Muslims is not germane to the issue. It is possible to be a peaceful Muslim and true to traditions of the founder of Islam. It is also possible to be a violent and intolerant Muslim and still be true to the traditions of the founder, and Spencer illustrates the sources of these traditions. It is not possible to be a violent and intolerant Christian and still be true to the dictates of Jesus.

Without drastic reform, Islam will continue to inspire violent subgroups. And (though Spencer doesn't address this) there isn't a simple rule for reform. Qur'an-only doesn't help, nor does "Qur'an plus only the best-attested hadith."

Saturday, August 16, 2003

Kristof and Religion

In his most recent column in the NYTimes Kristof expresses astonishment at the number of people who believe in their religion, and bemoans their lack of intellect. Of course he puts it in nicer words than that, but that's what it boils down to. To help make his point, he looks at Mary rather than Jesus; and talks about the Virgin Birth (found in the original sources) and the Assumption of Mary (a much later addition, and not universally accepted) in the same breath--a debating tactic rather than a real argument.

He refers to two Biblical scholars who disparage the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, and leaves you with the impression that these represent all Biblical scholarship. But a quick googling (combing out the popularizers) shows scholarship on both sides of the issue, addressing precisely the points he mentions. In short, Biblical scholarship cannot be claimed to be on the side of the skeptics. He is badly misinformed.

At the end he says "The heart is a wonderful organ, but so is the brain," and asserts that we are drifting "away from a rich intellectual tradition and toward the mystical." I propose that Mr. Kristof try reading a little history, and learn who Aquinas was, for example.

In the "answer-back" section in which he replies to readers Kristof quotes Kant to the effect that religious matters are not open to proof or disproof. Selective scholarship of this sort does not reflect well on Kristof. Plenty of scholars disagree with Kant on this matter. He may be fashionable, but that doesn't mean he's right. In the earliest Christian writings Paul says that Christianity is open to disproof--if Jesus wasn't raised from the dead, then he (Paul) is wrong; and if you doubt the fact then go ask the eyewitnesses.

I thought reporters went out looking for facts (and sometimes Kristof seems to do this well), but in some ways Kristof seems to want to hide in a comfy little philosophical world--no debate needed with the obviously ignorant outsiders.

Tuesday, August 12, 2003

The ideal of the working woman

The stay-at-home woman isn't earning a paycheck, and the dominant forms of feminism in this land seem to despise her for that. I find it rather curious that feminism, nominally founded on the notion that women are people just as valuable as men, seems instead to believe that men and women are not really valuable at all except as cogs in economic machines. I suppose that's a kind of equality...

Saturday, August 09, 2003

Analog to Godel's Theorem in Politics?

Godel's Theorem says that within any axiomatic (logical) system of inference and proof, it is possible to make a statement within that system which is valid, true, and unprovable, unless you introduce some new postulates (rules). This put a quick end to the grand attempts to derive all of mathematics from a few postulates.

Years of watching legislatures tinker with laws, and years of laying down the law myself as we try to raise children, have led me to suspect that Godel's theorem has a political/legal analog.

When we make laws we use various principles, and observations about what is just and unjust, to guide the creation of laws designed to punish some actions and reward other actions. No matter how well crafted the laws may be (and I try hard, I assure you), there always seems to be some loophole. There always is some behavior that ought to be rewarded and isn't, or ought to be punished and can't be. The analogy with axiomatic systems is not exact, so I can't prove this rigorously, but it is empirically true that "There is always a loophole." (Call it a special case of the Law of Unintended Side Effects). That sounds like a joke, but check it for yourself--it is true.

So, what do we do? Here at home we when faced with a problem we can try

  • "We are the king and queen and the ultimate authority, and we're going to punish this even if it didn't break the rules, because it violates such and such a principle."
  • "Oops, oh well. Just don't do that next time."
  • "Drat. We have to make a new rule about that."

Because we're the parents, and because we love our children, we can make any of these work reasonably well; but we're still fiddling with the rules after 21 years (our youngest is almost 10).

The political world is rather different. What do you do when someone comes up with a creative way of bookkeeping that bends the rules, or tries out a new mask for extortion?

  • We can select a person or group to review cases with the authority to override the laws if there is manifest injustice. You may as well call this person a king. We know what happens with kings--the temptation to abuse power for their own benefit generally gets the better of them. [OK, not always, but almost always]
  • We can shrug our shoulders, say that nothing is perfect, and hope that social pressure or approval serves to fix the problem. The culture isn't always perfect either, of course (I give you Pakistani attitudes toward rape as an example); and history is full of plausible villains who managed to finesse social pressure and win support for their villainy.
  • We can add a new observation to the system ("yyy" is bad) and pass some new laws to take care of the problem. Of course there'll be a new loophole in the new and improved system. In addition, steering among the thicket of laws becomes harder; and eventually the laws begin to contradict each other (see the US Federal Tax Code for examples {hat tip to an H&R Block man I carpooled with}). Unless there are periodic efforts to eliminate laws the system becomes unusably complex--buggy.
  • Run things according to God's laws, which are by definition perfect. Unfortunately the interpreters turn out to be imperfect (and not infrequently stupid) priests, imams, or what have you.
  • Trust to education and reshaping the culture to make people look for the just and the good even when these are not strictly prescribed by law. The fact that this hasn't worked anywhere for the past 3000 years doesn't seem to dissuade the partisans of this method who seem certain that their little change in strategy will make the teaching take. Rule of thumb--it is easy to make people worse, but very hard to make people better

There don't seem to be any silver bullets for this problem, and indeed if "Godel's Political Analog" is true, we shouldn't expect one.

One thing does seem to work, or at least help. If the participants have both humility and a hunger to do the right thing, the results can be acceptably just and free. These virtues aren't legislatable, or even reliably teachable. If these virtues infuse the culture (not the same as saying that everyone has them), the society may not be perfect, but it will be a lot nicer to live in provided you come from the right side of the tracks. You needn't have a law against cannibalism if the act is unthinkable. You don't need laws against littering if everyone thinks the public streets are their own and picks up any trash they see (yes, I lived in Switzerland for a few months).

I think I can safely assert that these sorts of virtues do not arise naturally out of some kind of social system, but are inputs to it. I may revisit that assertion to demonstrate it... And I can't say that any of the examples either have been permanent or have extended their benefits to strangers well.

Subliminal or sloppy?

On the back of a 22oz box of Corn CHEX

everyone LOVES
   waking up to chex!

Two, and only two letters overlap: the large letter s from 'loves' and the h from 'chex'. The eye reads it naturally just the way you expect: waking up to Sex....

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

None of the Above

There've been several elections I've voted in where I disliked all the candidates for some office or another. I've wished there were a binding way of saying None of these turkeys--try again.

Suppose there were? How could we get it to work?

First off, we can't do this for the office of the President without monkeying with the Constitution, and I want to avoid that. Any experiments we should try locally and see what happens. (The Law of Unintended Consequences is a fundamental rule of the Universe.)

Let's define a simple model, and try it out as a gedanken experiment. Bear in mind that this does not interfere with other voting approaches, such as weighted voting.

For each office, the last name on the ballot is "None of the Above." If a candidate achieves a majority, he wins. If no candidate achieves a majority, there is a runoff election. In that runoff election no candidate outpolled by "None of the Above" may appear. If, for example, NOTA (None of the Above) receives more votes than all but candidate A, then candidate A may appear on the runoff ballot, but the others may not. All parties which ran candidates on the first ballot may offer replacement candidates, with the number of signatures required to appear being reduced. NOTA is also a candidate on this runoff election.

If no candidate receives a majority in the runoff election, a second runoff election is scheduled. The number of signatures required to appear on the ballot is the same as for the first runoff. This time no candidate is excluded, and NOTA does not appear on the ballot (somebody has to serve in the office, after all). (There might be a third runoff between the top two vote-winners.)


  • This is apt to be expensive.
  • Getting together enough signatures in a few weeks is hard, and biases the system towards nominating people for the runoffs who have a very strong organization backing them, such as party and labor leaders. Personal shoeleather campaigns are less likely to win.
  • If party X has a strong candidate A and nobody else in the wings as good, then party Y faces a strong temptation to wage a campaign of cynicism in hopes that NOTA will win and give party Y a better chance in the runoff.
The way it ought to work

All parties nominate decent candidates who argue about issues and credentials. The voters give one a majority.
Scenario A

Party X nominates A and party Y nominates B. During the campaign we discover that A has some unfortunate character traits or lack of skill. Yellow-dog partisans of X, unwilling to ever vote for anyone from party Y, vote for NOTA hoping for a runoff. If NOTA actually outpolls candidate B, B must not be very popular in the district, and it doesn't distort the representation to let party X have the chance to try somebody new. Conclusion: It costs $$ but doesn't misrepresent the wishes of the voting public.
Scenario B

Voters become even more cynical than they are now. Rather than stay home when they don't know who's who, a significant number show up and register protest NOTA votes. This could be important, as about 60% of potential voters don't. Voters who don't show up don't distort the results much, but voters trying to sabotage the system can. Conclusion: Regular wins by NOTA are a warning sign. Either the parties are fielding jerks, the campaigns are worthless, or a large chunk of the population has given up on democracy.
Scenario C

Selecting nominees becomes a poker game, where party bosses calculate the chances of forcing a runoff; offering sacrificial candidates for the first round and campaigning for NOTA. They balance the risk that the other party might beat NOTA and the risk that NOTA might also win the runoff against the chance of putting the other party's best candidate out of the running. Conclusion: I don't see any upside to this. The strategy is very risky, but I've learned not to underestimate the cunning of political strategists.

Worth a try?

A city might be willing to try this experiment, if the state legislature could be persuaded to agree. Yours?

Friday, August 01, 2003


Usually the light timing is such that I drive through the intersection with the "adult" bookstore, but this morning I waited at the red. A woman stepped out of the store into the back parking lot, lit up and stood smoking in front of the "No loitering" sign. The law keeps most businesses here "smoke-free"--some vices are unsupportable. :-)